Driven to Succeed: The Rico Bearman Interview Reading Shooting The Breeze: With Neil Brunjes 16 minutes

Shooting The Breeze: With Neil Brunjes

Intro and interview by Mike Vockenson with photos supplied by NB or as otherwise noted

 The content appearing on The Journal is intended to fill a gap that used to be so diligently covered by magazines. Effectively, we would like to assume that space that exists between long-form conversations that you might find in a podcast setting and the super-short form content on social media. To do this, we must be engaging, offer original and insightful commentary as well as be balanced, insofar as covering local to international scenes, grommets to professionals as well as presenting a broad cross section of voices. The more the merrier an' that!

In working within this framework, it must be said that BMX race content is not represented as much as it should be. We're working on improving this and to demonstrate, we're now able to present another in-depth feature interview with Australian born (and raised), London based racer Neil Brunjes

Growing up in the Cooloola coast (i.e. Gympie), Neil spent 10 years competing in the local, Australian and international race circuit (at the top level), all the way until the metamorphosis of being 18 took effect. As life ebbed and flowed, a move to London in 2015 evoked a fresh sense of self and has been the fortunate shift which eventually led to a re-discovery of BMX racing. 

By trade, Neil works as an electrician keeping the tangled mess of the underground railway network in operation. By interest, the dude has wound up entangled in the BMX racing scene, coming back to the sport after a decade in hibernation to rekindle a long lost love for bikes & dirt at the age of 29. Now 34, Neil is enjoying being back racing competitively more than ever, deep within an entirely new community and one which is better for his presence.

Most importantly, and something that translates across all forms of biking, is the understanding that receiving the full complement of all that BMX offers is unlocked only when you accept that fun and enjoyment is what matters most. It must be acknowledged for the impact it inevitably provides. Neil gets it and I hope that after reading this, you are able to feel the weight of this phenomenon, to bleed it into your own perspective in harnessing the joy of a bicycle. 

Take a read as Neil and I cover off growing up racing in Australia, likening to the contemporary UK scene and what fuels the dude to keep on keeping on. It's a unique one today my friends, so enjoy!

Kickin' it in Ghana, Africa 2021/2022 with partner Effie, photo by Tom Swale

So you quit BMX racing at that magical age of 18. What pulled ya from the track? Is it the cliche themes of girls, partying, cars etc or was it more nuanced? I recall the skatepark vortex pulling me in pretty hard and feeling like the elite class which I was about to enter, was a little too serious for me. Anyway, I didn't have to think too hard, it just kinda happened, which feels weird in hindsight.

There were 2 reasons really. I remember having a really tough year going into Junior Elite Men, especially at the 2006 Australian Titles in Adelaide - you know the one that you won haha. I needed to win my last moto to make it through to elimination rounds and from memory I was leading that moto until I over jumped the triple into the first turn crashing out. I remember the dizziness trying to walk my bike up the lip of the first jump on the second straight, probably with a slight concussion. I think that experience really took its toll on me. I look back on it now and wish I could've had a bit more resilience though.

The second reason is the typical distractions, girls, partying, cars, work etc. I went straight into an electrical apprenticeship after school too and we would be away for 4 - 6 weeks working in remote Queensland mining sites so getting to races would've been difficult to pursue.

Gripping the bitumen at the indoor 2023 national series in Manchester, photo by Abi Taylor

What kickstarted your interest in BMX and what has kept you engaged for so long?

In Australia my neighbours and I would ride our bikes every single day building jumps and bombing hills. A guy called Robbie Brady introduced my neighbours and I to racing at Cooloola BMX club and we never looked back. Shout out Robbie who still races!

In the UK I found BMX racing again first by seeing some racer kids from our flat window in East London, I didn't even realise that there was a club right across the park from me - Hackney BMX Club. Shortly after, I was walking our dog in the park and I would always swing by the track where I met a guy called Tink. I asked him for a ride on his bike and from that moment I knew I needed to get back into it.
I guess it's in the blood, going fast, making calculated decisions, trying to be as smooth as possible and sending the odd triple. It has me hooked on BMX racing.

Calculated decision making is a great point to highlight. It's one of those skills that comes from BMX but has application in so many other aspects of non-BMX life, this is something I've been interested in exploring of late. I'm wondering if you've noticed how your life has been enhanced through skills/behaviours etc that you've learned through BMX?

I'd like to think it's had a positive impact on my life. Where I notice it most is at the track though whether it's racing or training. I love that feeling of hitting a technical straight or trying something new and getting it perfect in training or going all out racing into the first turn with people either side of you and you need to somehow find your line, hopefully in the lead.

Leading the pack in a moto at the 2023 Glasgow world championships, Australia over France baby. Photo by Charles Robertson

Talk to me about the culture in BMX racing, how do you see it and what does it feel like to be a part of in 2024?

BMX racing can feel like a bit of a problem child at times. For example, we have the 2012 Olympic track (changes have been made since the Olympics) here in Stratford, London that I ride on a weekly basis, yet we can't hold a race there. This is a national standard track if not world class level (with a bit of work) track that is not being used. The facility is under management who charge extortionate fees and set unrealistic expectations to "hire" the BMX track yet they host a round of the UCI world track cycling championships (velodrome) every year at the same venue.

It seems like the USA, which has always been the powerhouse of BMX racing (and some European countries - especially France), are doing great things with BMX. Here in the UK we have 5 stops with 10 rounds on the National circuit plus the British Championships. It's a healthy circuit with about 1000 riders at national events. Internally the BMX community is great, there is a lot of passion and a lot of incredible talent. Externally some more funding, more sponsors / sponsorship deals and more exposure would be very much welcomed. All of these things are financially driven though and if it doesn't make financial sense for businesses or brands then the deals and coverage just isn't there. I will say there is some progress coming through here in the UK with @bmxracehub and a bunch of individuals doing a lot on social media for BMX racing exposure. I'm absolutely loving being a part of it again because I just love racing and riding bikes. It's all fun for me now though, of course I still want to win but I'm not crying about it if I don't. 

Great insights into the UK racing scene. Is there still a grassroots movement that exists? I recall that, from a SEQ perspective, things were pretty small scale, however there was always a grassroots energy which the sport benefitted from without having to invest too much at the top. While the sport could have obviously grown more with additional numbers and funding, it was always going to continue as the sport is so unique and attractive, albeit to a niche segment of the community.

That's a really good point actually. A lot of the time we focus on the top end of the sport talking about professional prize money, TV coverage etc. Then if you look at the interest at local clubs level it actually seems really good from what I can tell. For example, my local club Hackney BMX has to turn new riders away from its weekly coaching sessions due to not enough coaches and not having a full size track. Peckham BMX club in London look like they do a great job with getting new faces into BMX racing, feeding into the London and regional series races as well. I wonder how the sport of BMX would grow if we did get more coverage such as TV time and advertising through mainstream sponsorships though.

Leaving the ground to spend some time in the air, as simple as it gets and a central gift of BMX. On the left we have a look at the first straight of the Redditch track from 2024. This was from a weekend trip with the 'Crew19' boys, photo by Tony Twist. On the right we have a hire bike leap at Neil's local pump track in Haggerston, London.

What setup do you ride and why did you go with that particular arrangement?

Funny you should ask because @crucialbmxshop and I have just built a fully tangent equipped Pro XXXL RIFT ready for the 2024 season. The thing is out of this world, I've never built a bike from the ground up before and this ones got the lot, disc brake and all the sexy carbon bits. I've wanted a RIFT ever since I saw Bodi Turners chrome set up in 2021.

So you ride masters. Can you outline, for the uninitiated, what the masters class is and how it fits into a broader race categories?

Depends what level we are talking about haha. World Championship Masters are on another level. We are talking ex-professional riders. At World Championship level you have Masters category (30+) then you also have age categories 30 - 34 Men & 35+ Men. I race Masters in the UK national series however you have some world champion level riders here in the UK racing in either Elite Men or 19 - 29 class. I raced 30 - 34 Men in the 2023 World Champs coming 6th in the final. For the 2024 season I will be racing 35+ Men at the World Champs in Rock Hill, South Carolina in May and I'm going to throw myself into the 19 - 29 class for the UK national series.

Left, Neil at his first QLD championships in Mackay (2000) in which he took out 4th place in 11 boys. Right, 2 years later and this time at the national championships in Hobart racing 13 boys, points for the visor of course. 

This is a trip for anyone who has been to the Gympie BMX track in recent times, you'll recognise this vista with the familiar ten pin bowling alley in the rear - the facility having come a long way. Neil takes to the dirt on his first race bike, an unidentified Mongoose made of heavy ass steel!

Having been around racing in Australia in the early 2000s, what do you notice now about the state of BMX racing in 2024?

It's evolved a lot. Frame geometry has changed so much compared to our early 2000s bikes, for example there are now 20mm through axles, less handlebar sweep & longer frames. That was another thing that drew me back in, the sleek design of these modern frames just looked so fast compared to what I was used to. Modern tracks are crazy now too, 8m SX (super cross) hills, like how mental is that!

On the modern race frame, I too have noticed the vast change in frame setup over the last 15 years. Although from my perspective, probably due to being so involved in freestyle and that style of bike design, contemporary race frames are unattractive and a little foreign. However, I haven't actually ridden one, so there may be ample benefits which I'm not aware of. From your point of view, how does a modern race frame ride in comparison to your setup in your teens?

This is so easy to answer because I got my old Haro Group 1 SX back up and running when I was back in Australia in September 2022. Doing a bit of digging to find the specs, I believe it was a 2006 model with a 21" top tube. It was absolutely shocking to ride, first lap I almost ate shit when my foot slipped off the pedal halfway down the hill. Someone quickly pointed out how thick my pedals were compared to the modern flat pedals we use these days and that they are so much more prone to rolling as you pedal.

Another major point I noticed was the bars. They had so much sweep on them. I swear I was about to pop out of every berm, well that's what it felt like anyway. Modern geometry is much longer, giving you a more stable ride helping with gates and manuals. I found with a slightly longer frame manualling deep rhythm sections and picking up for certain jumps was much more controllable. I'm on a 22" top tube now and some of the longer frames are up to 23".

The NB rig, the Pro XXXL Rift, photo by Jack Mowat

Who inspires you in the BMX racing landscape and why?

There's so much inspiration everywhere you look with BMX. You can't beat a bit of nostalgic Sam Willoughby, I loved watching Kai Sakakibara coming up, Bodi Turner is a straight up legend, the whole French team are just fucking insane. More locally here in the UK you have guys like @calstrickland as the 2022 Masters World Champ who's been around forever and the whole junior elite class, those guys are so sick to watch. I have to shout out the @whoiscrew19 crew as well, we usually travel the national circuit together and that's always a wild time. These guys have so many stories from European rounds and world championships, hearing those stories from years gone by just makes me think I wish I didn't have the 10 years away from racing but that's life I guess.

Sounds like you've really worked your way into the UK racing scene, which is sick to hear. Can you detail more about the national circuit and travelling with the @whoiscrew19 boys?

Yeah there is a really good scene over here with some very promising talent coming through. London has a couple of nice tracks however the UK BMX headquarters is in Manchester where the national team are based. People tend to avoid London races due to parking and traffic complications. Nationals are about to kick off at the indoor in Manchester in March. There are 10 rounds over 5 weekends this year. The opener at the indoor is always good, it's such an iconic track from all of the old super cross rounds, it runs so fast and has to be one of the favourites from the circuit.

Travelling around the country with the Crew19 guys and girls is awesome, as the saying goes "it's a crew not a team". We usually throw the bikes in the vans and get to the race for Friday afternoon where you will find a ton of Crew19 jerseys on track for Friday night practice. Over the weekend of racing people usually float between their team tent and the Crew19 tent. The Crew19 tent is usually a little less serious, everyone's welcome.

Skimming over a double at the 2023 national series in Manchester with Billy Luckhurst in tow. Photo by Abi Taylor


Some key people that help me out a lot, @bmxhyperacing as the new 2024 sponsor, @gllsportsfoundation gym membership, @whoiscrew19 da boyz, @crucialbmx best UK bike shop, @csbmxtraining Cal Strickland dialling the training programs in. This will be my 3rd year with Cal. Lastly, @dannyeet & @billyluckhurst for letting me bum van rides all over the UK.


That's a wrap my friends. Big cheers to Neil for working on me with this one, we've been back and forth for over 2 months now and you know that some of those old photos weren't easy to find either. I'll leave you with another grainy ass film shot from his trip to Ghana and an iconic power stance. What a dreamboat!